What the terrorists believe

(START, University of Maryland)
(START, University of Maryland)


A new report out from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland gives us the best current look at the ideologies that motivate terrorism in the United States.

Jihadist attacks and the fears they generate dominate both the news cycle and the popular imagination, as this week’s deadly incident in Manhattan reminds us. But the START report makes clear that events like this are far from the only, or even the main, story.

If we turn the clock back to the 2000s, 9/11 notwithstanding, we find that the dominant ideology motivating terrorist attacks in that decade was radical environmentalism, accounting for 64 percent of all incidents, with the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front leading the way.

Religiously motivated attacks, including those perpetrated by those embracing jihadist ideology, represent just a small fraction of events during the 2000s.

While religious motivation jumps dramatically in our current decade, identified in 53 percent of cases, that includes not just jihadi or other Muslim extremists, but Christian anti-abortion extremists along with those targeting Muslims, Jews, and Sikhs.

While jihadi-inspired extremists account for 21 attacks from 2010 to 2016, anti-Muslim extremists are close on their heels, responsible for 18 attacks during the same period. And right-wing extremists of all stripes, from anti-government sovereign citizens to white supremacists and white nationalists, account for a full 35 percent of attacks.

What’s the takeaway from the START report? It’s that the story of terrorism in the United States is more complex and nuanced than the current narrative might lead you to believe.

Far from living in an unprecedented era of danger from terrorism, the reality is that terrorist incidents in the US have dwindled in number every decade since the 1970s. And, if you exclude the extreme outliers of Oklahoma City in the 1995 and 9/11 in 2001, the number of fatalities attributable to terrorism has yet to reach let alone surpass the levels seen in the 1970s.

That last statistic is a reminder that in the American experience, again, those few outliers notwithstanding, the story of terrorism is not one of routine mass casualties, or even any casualties at all. For every Oklahoma City, or 9/11, San Bernardino, or Pulse nightclub, there are have been literally thousands of non-lethal terrorist attacks — a full 91 percent of all incidents — in the United States over the last four decades.

Keep that in mind the next time some politician, or cable TV network, tries to stoke your fear and leverage it for their own ends.

What happened in Las Vegas was terrible, but was it terrorism?

(Photo: ABC News)
(Photo: ABC News)

Definitions of terrorism matter. Even though there is no consensus definition in either the academic, policy, or law enforcement communities, definitions matter.

Here’s a few reasons why:

  • From an academic and analytical standpoint, we need clear definitions so that we can identify and study like cases. This is essential for generating knowledge that can help us understand why terrorism occurs, the means that terrorists employ, and the range of potentially effective responses available to policy makers.
  • From a policy standpoint, the options will be different depending on what motivates an actor to engage in any act of violence, including mass murder. In short, policies aimed at preventing, defending against, and responding to any act of violence will differ depending on whether the individual or group was acting out of criminal self-interest (like Colombian “narcoterrorism” or the more recent brutality unleashed by the Mexican drug cartels), idiosyncratic factors such as mental illness (for example the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook shooters), or some political motivation (as in Oklahoma City and San Bernardino).
  • From a law enforcement perspective, at least in the US, what happened in Las Vegas would not be considered an act of terrorism, as federal law defines terrorism as acts involving links to designated foreign terrorist organizations. Timothy McVeigh, for example, did not face terrorism charges for the Oklahoma City bombing. The reasons why domestic terrorism is not designated as such under federal law are wrapped up in questions of First Amendment protections and a reluctance to consider imposing legal sanctions based on political or religious ideologies, even if they are used as justifications for violence.

So what is terrorism? By definition, terrorism is a political act.

Here’s the most basic definition that I use with my students:

Terrorism is the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear, through violence or the threat of violence, in the pursuit of political change.

Here’s a better, more detailed and nuanced, definition:

Terrorism is premeditated, politically, religiously, or socially motivated violence, or the threat of violence, against civilian targets by non-state actors, usually intended to influence an audience through the creation and exploitation of fear. In short, terrorism is a form of political theater designed to reach beyond the immediate victims of any given attack.

When we define terrorism as a form of political action, we can ask why groups and individuals choose that particular form — violence — over non-violent means in an attempt to produce a desired political outcome. It helps us understand how a group like the Army of God can emerge as a result of the perceived failure of non-violent groups like Operation Rescue to end the practice of abortion. Or how the inability of Students for a Democratic Society to end the Vietnam War through non-violent mass protest can lead to the emergence of the Weather Underground.

I think it matters that the media get it right insofar as the media has the ability to shape both public perceptions and policy responses.

If every act of mass killing is terrorism, then there is no substantive difference between Charles Whitman in the tower at the University of Texas, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School, Wade Michael Page at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI, or the Tsarnaev brothers at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

And yet we know they were all driven to act by different motives and impulses.

Not every terrible act is an act of terrorism. Not every case of mass murder, no matter how disturbing or terrifying, is terrorism.

Until we know more about why Stephen Paddock did what he did — and we may never know — we cannot call what happened in Las Vegas on Sunday night terrorism.

England prevails! Maybe …


After literally years away from the game, I’m playing Diplomacy again, this time with a group of students and colleagues here in the Political Science Department at Oakland University.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, Diplomacy is the classic board game of early 20th century European great-power geo-strategic competition and conflict.

Or, as Grantland describes it, “the board game of the alpha nerds.”

I’m playing England.

First published in 1959, the game has a long and distinguished history. You can get a flavor for some of that, plus an overview of the game itself and the numerous variants that have been produced over the years here.

N7J0179 - Duckies Awards Web Badges-2Given that I teach international relations for a living, you’d think I’d be a natural at this thing. Truth be told, though, and despite the fact that I first played Diplomacy some 30 years ago as an undergrad, I don’t expect to do all that well once things start to get … interesting.

Ultimately, to win the game, you have to stab the other players in the back. Ideally you want to do this after lulling them into a false sense of security by cooperating with them long enough that they lose their natural suspicion of you. And then, when they are particularly vulnerable, you betray them to advance your own interests.

I’ve never been very good at that part of the game. I understand the traditional Realist logic of the game: pursue self-interest above all else; alliances are temporary arrangements of convenience to be discarded when they no longer serve your interests; today’s partners are tomorrow’s adversaries; trust no one, least of all when your security is at stake; trust no one, because no one will trust you; expect everyone else to be playing the game the same way.

In my experience, knowing the underlying logic of the game, and being able to deploy that logic at just the right time for maximum efficacy,  are very different things. My weakness in the past has been in placing too much trust in my alliance partnerships and my unwillingness to drive the knife home when I spot a vulnerability on the part of one of my allies.

But not this time. This time I intend to be ruthless. This time, in the words of Chancellor Sutler:


Teach? How about we watch a movie instead

Pro tip for negotiators: Keep your vulnerabilities to yourself.
Pro tip for negotiators: Keep your vulnerabilities to yourself.


It happens every semester. I get to a point where I really just want to show a movie in class. And my students get to a point where they really just want to watch a movie.

We hit that moment in my course on international negotiation last evening. When I walked into the classroom, one of the students straight up asked if we could watch a movie. Ironically, I was thinking the same thing.

Truth be told, as I was packing my lecture notes and books and getting set to head out from my office, I paused in front of my shelf of DVDs looking for a film that would highlight the evening’s topic: adversarial bargaining with an emphasis on coercive diplomacy and strategies of punishment.

N7J0179 - Duckies Awards Web Badges-2I came up empty. And as I thought more about it, nothing really came to mind. That was a surprise because I use films a lot in the classroom. I mean I taught an entire course last year for the Honors College using feature films to explore theories and highlight key issues in international relations.

And it’s not that films don’t have the potential to illustrate the kinds of concepts and theories that I’m trying to teach my negotiation students. It’s just that the lessons tend to come in bits and pieces. Take, for instance, The Godfather saga.

In the first film, the encounter between Tom Hagen, Corleone Family consigliere, and movie studio executive Jack Woltz is a terrific example of several key points I try to emphasize for my students.

Tom’s opening bid is straightforward and to the point, clearly laying out his preferences and identifying what he is willing to offer in return for a mutually beneficial negotiated settlement. This is a straightforward application of the strategy of reward described in Richard Ned Lebow’s book, The Art of Persuasion.

Woltz, however,  makes several classic errors. Chief among them is allowing his emotions to overrule his rational assessment of the potential benefits of agreement, something that Zartman and Berman caution against in their book The Practical Negotiator. Fisher and Ury, in Getting to Yes, would characterize this as failing to separate the people from the problem.

Woltz also makes the error of showing his counterpart where his points of vulnerability lie, giving  Hagen an informational advantage that he is able to exploit to punish Woltz for his failure to cooperate. In short, it’s no wonder Woltz ends up with a horse head in his bed.

If we move past the first film, The Godfather Part 2 provides additional material. In the scene below, we get another example of the failure to separate the people from the problem, but more importantly, what happens when you misunderstand exactly where asymmetries of power lie in a negotiation situation.

As we learn later, the senator’s fatal mistake is believing that he holds both an informational and power advantage over Michael, and can translate those asymmetries into leverage that allows him to dictate terms to the Corleone Family. Michael’s counteroffer demonstrates that he understands otherwise.

But frankly, isolated clips can only take you so far. If I’m trying to kill a full 3-hour class period, I need a film that can give me more than a couple of isolated snippets of relevant material.

So I’m turning to the collective wisdom of those of you who read this post. Give me your suggestions for the films you would use if you were teaching a course on negotiation and bargaining, and tell me why they work.

I’ll give you credit on my syllabus the next time the course comes around.

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